Always Turn Toward, Never Turn Away

Rigdzin Shikpo

ssExcerpts from Never Turn Away
Rigdzin Shikpo – Wisdom Publications


A meditator's meditator, Rigdzin Shikpo (Michael Hookham) began the practice in the mid 1950s and eventually became a prominent student of several renowned Tibetan Buddhist teachers, including Chögyam Trungpa and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Over the years he has developed his own utterly unique style made of straight talk and sparkling, inspiring insights.

The title of this comes from the teachings Rigdzin Shikpo received from Trungpa Rinpoche, who said that we should always turn toward those things that scare us, open to them completely, and never turn away from them. This path of openness, clarity, and sensitivity is a hallmark of the Dzogchen tradition of Buddhist practice. Rigdzin Shikpo has lived its truth so deeply that his words shine with authenticity and freshness.

If you asked Trungpa Rinpoche for the essence of the Buddha's teaching, he would say, "It is very simple. It is simply the teaching of openness, complete openness."

Trungpa Rinpoche's approach was simply to be open and to minimize the projections we make on our experience. His great saying was, "Turn towards everything." Even if we don't know what to do, or how to handle a situation, we just turn toward it. What comes to us might be quite painful, but it is always better to turn toward. It is a very simple choice, although it might be a painful choice sometimes. We can either turn toward or we can turn away, and Trungpa Rinpoche said you should always turn toward, and never turn away.

We may find, having turned toward a situation, that we don't know what to do. That might be embarrassing, but it's an interesting kind of embarrassment.

Empty Handed

A martial arts teacher once explained to me that the word karate means to have "an empty hand." We don't need what he called a "secret sword"; in fact, we train to give up all such secret swords. From a Buddhist point of view, we all have a number of secret--and maybe not so secret--swords which we use to handle difficult circumstances, when all we really need is to be empty handed, to come nakedly into situations.

We could almost call this the path of embarrassment. Ordinarily, we free ourselves from embarrassment in difficult situations by having some contrived method up our sleeves. But the only method that really helps, in the end, is simply to turn toward and experience things clearly. We have to overcome the embarrassment of not always knowing how to handle ourselves. We have to let go of our habits, projections, and other easy, familiar devices that don't really work.

We don't need to be especially brave to practice Dharma. It is more like we reach a situation where there is only one road to take; it's almost the wisdom of despair. We have tried everything else, so why not try this? If we thought we had another option, we might not try anything so radical. Maybe we are irritated with our ordinary ways of reacting to situations. Perhaps there is a simpler way of dealing with existence, something more radical than simply "handling" things.

This approach is actually more real than radical. There is something very wholesome about turning toward things completely and openly. It is very sharp and uncontrived and feels genuine in a way that our ordinary projections and ways of handling things never do. But we will never know this unless we do the practice, because we will have nothing to compare it to.

By turning toward situations as openly as possible we get the raw data of our experience. This is just the first stage, but that first stage is crucial, and carries us a long way.

Seeing Things as They Are

The next stage is more at the level of insight. We might discover, for example, that our sense of self is not as solid as we thought. Or we could have some genuine realization of what we dismissively call "just change." Experiencing a moment of non-ego sounds like more of a discovery because it is such an unfamiliar experience. But everyone knows things change. What is there to discover in that? Well, actually there is a great deal to discover, because we have only a conceptual understanding of change. Intellectually, of course, we all know t~hat things change. But we never feel the significance, of change in our hearts and in our guts.

It is obvious that ordinary things change. We can see this as we walk into a room and switch on the television, or leave the house to go shopping. We think that this is just how things work, and its significance doesn't hit us. But when our bodies change--especially if the change is dramatic or sudden--then this has a much greater emotional impact. An accident, or sudden discovery that we or someone close to us has a life-threatening disease, feels much more invasive. But again, we often miss its significance. Instead, we think about visiting a doctor; and as our beauty fades, we wonder about face creams. Meanwhile the significance of aging and change still doesn't hit us.

As Buddhist practitioners, we train to see the significance of impermanence at every level: at the s6emingly insignificant level of everyday things like shopping and watching television, as much as the dramatic and emotionally compelling level of old age, sickness, and death.

Some people feel Buddhism is pessimistic. But really it is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It is just seeing things as they are. Buddhist practice is about becoming more open, clear, and sensitive. There is nothing gloomy about that. Of course, this makes our experience clearer and sharper, and we might not like that. We may feel uncomfortable when our seemingly solid world becomes "more transparent" and "not so easily grasped at," as Trungpa Rinpoche used to say. But it is hardly pessimistic to see that the world of Our experience is potentially a much brighter, vaster place than we ever thought possible.
It reminds me of being taken to the seaside when I was very small. Looking at the sea for the first time, I burst into tears and ran away. The sea seemed so very big and I was so small. The sea scared me, but that was no reason for pessimism. I was just seeing clearly what was there before me, and I had to overcome my fear with the help of parents and friends.

The Truth of Suffering

The Buddha's first truth, the truth of suffering, is not saying that everything is miserable. It's saying that suffering, or duhkha, is inherent in the very nature of existence and in the basic structure of all sentient beings. Now, Western books on Buddhism often give the impression that the Buddha taught this to everyone he met. But evidence suggests that the Buddha would teach very differently if his audience wasn't ready to discover this universal--if hidden--truth of the nature of things.

The term dukha cannot be fully understood by our ordinary idea of suffering. Technically, its meaning has three aspects: the suffering of suffering, the suffering of impermanence and changes and the suffering of the skandhas.

The first is fairly easy to understand. Suffering and dissatisfaction are unfair, in the most obvious sense. The fact that we may already be suffering doesn't insure against more suffering. This is what Trungpa Rinpoche described as the "suffering of suffering." The example he gave to me was that having cancer is no insurance against being run down by a car.

The second, more subtle, aspect of suffering is the duhkha of anitya, or the suffering of impermanence and change. Sooner or later, due to the dynamic of change, the things we grasp at and want to continue will fall apart. If we cling to them and have a vested interest in their permanence, we will be forever disappointed and will suffer for that reason.

Of course, it could be argued that if we're already suffering, any change in our circumstances would be a good thing. But this is more subtle than our ordinary notions of liking or disliking; it is the fact that the instability, the collapse, and the finishing of things is painful in itself. We wish for stability and permanence, and this is forever denied us, irrespective of whether we are talking about pain or pleasure. It is something we want but can never get.

The third and most subtle kind of suffering is the duhkha of the five skandhas. These are the very constituents of our existence: the form of our bodies, our feelings of pleasure and pain, our sense perceptions, the contents of our minds and hearts, and our consciousness. The skandhas are not only the constituents of our personal existence, they also involve our perception of the external world and the things we hold on to in that world.

The extra subtlety here is that the skandhas are themselves a false creation. Since they don't correspond to what is truly there, we find ourselves emotionally involved in false projections and distortions of reality. Our seeming reality is fundamentally false, and we are absorbed into that falseness, which is painful. This is the most subtle kind of duhkha." the suffering of our very existence.

Taken at face value, most of us in the West would dispute the truth of suffering. Not everything in our lives and in the world is suffering. Yes, there is much suffering in the world--both mental and physical--and life is often unsatisfactory. We are not going to live-forever, so there is always that uncertainty hovering over us. But on the scale of suffering, some of us seem to suffer less than others, and on occasion, we all rather enjoy ourselves. Of course, we are talking here about something that points to a much deeper level of experience. But while it is all very well to say this, most Western people still can't relate to it.

In traditional cultures, where there is more respect for the Buddha-dharma, and the teaching itself has great charisma, people tend to accept the truth of suffering, whether they understand it or not. It has a cultural meaning for them, and they can go on to train to see the truth of it. Lacking that background, we might easily think that Buddhism must be intrinsically depressing and certainly not life-affirming.

Early Western commentators, looking at the first translations of Buddhist texts, sometimes portrayed Buddhism as being negative and pessimistic. I feel there is no point in pressing on that particular nerve. The Buddha's teaching contains many things, and while the nature of duhkha is fundamental, we can let it emerge gradually, if it does. Who knows? Maybe we will find that, in some deep and profound way, life is wonderful after all, even from a Buddhist perspective.

The most important thing is to experience the nature of our worlds as directly as we can. I say "worlds" because our seemingly common world is made up of all of our very different emotions, ideas, and projections. We can at least aspire to become free of notions and projections about how the world should be, and try to experience things as they are.

That simple act of aspiring to be free, to be free insofar as we can be free, is more important than we might think.

Imaginary Barriers

Trungpa Rinpoche decided that the best way to express the Buddha's teaching was in terms of openness. The word. open has an immediate meaning for us. We speak of people being open or closed. Being closed is associated with claustrophobia and a narrowed outlook or vision. Being open suggests, we are open to many different possibilities and ways of thinking and feeling. We are open to others, allowing them to rub up against or even strike us at times, without immediately blocking them off. Openness is a way of learning about the world that enables us to relate to things properly and to act skillfully.

Trungpa Rinpoche occasionally spoke to me about absolute or complete openness. This is something more than openness in the ordinary sense. Rinpoche suggested it was possible to experience the world free of any ego-contrived barriers whatsoever. Moreover, this state of absolute openness is completely natural. We don't have to construct it, or indeed, deconstruct it, as we say these days. We don't have to pull down a burning wall in our minds and hearts. Such walls exist only in our imagination. That imagination, however, is as powerful as a magical enchantment.

Waking from a Spell

The power of our false view of the world is like an enchantment. The great fourteenth-century master Longchen Rabjam spoke of it in these terms. Enchantment is a good word for it. It's as if we are under a spell, or "glamor," that causes us to see things that aren't there and fail to see things that are. This false view makes up the world as we know it.
This spell is not cast upon us by some evil magician; in a sense we create it ourselves. Through our practice of openness and awareness we become convinced that we are under an enchantment. A gradual sense of disenchantment--in the positive sense--arises. Now you might think that this would come as a great relief, but not so, unfortunately. The
biggest shock often comes as the spell dissolves, and we find ourselves saying, "Where has my world gone?"

Suddenly we realize that the universe is a much vaster place than we
ever imagined. We see what a parochial view we had before. We may yowl I
that we don't want to go there! We don't want it to be so vast and open!
But it's just a sign that we need to straighten ourselves out.

Fortunately, it's not fundamentally that difficult. Many others have done so before, and so can we. This is the Buddhist view and the path of
openness, which is certainly not pessimistic.


Meditation: The Basis of the Path

Why would anyone want to learn meditation in the first place? Maybe it seems obvious. Couldn't we all do with a quieter life? Things can get quite rough out there! There are so many things we have to relate to, whether we like it or not. Our jobs, relationships, families, and friends sometimes give us satisfaction, even inspiration, but often they just make us feel trapped. So we look to meditation to get a quieter, calmer mind.
But it isn't as easy as we think. There is no magic wand for calming the mind. When we put a lot of effort into calming the mind it rebels, creating yet another problem. The trouble with always wanting a quiet mind is that sooner or later we get ruffled by circumstances, and should we get sufficiently disturbed, we probably feel our practice is a complete failure.

In formless meditation we take a different approach. Meditation is not about creating a blank mind or suppressing thoughts. The arising and passing away of thoughts isn't an obstruction to meditation. It is a way of learning about our minds. It's a way of appreciating just how powerful our minds are.

It is common knowledge that meditation plays a central part in the lives of Buddhist practitioners. What is less well understood is that meditation, by itself, is not necessarily helpful. Yes, many people are helped by meditation, but often it only has a mild effect for a short while and little overall impact. Sometimes people are even harmed by it.

The problem is that meditation can powerfully reinforce our world view. Our ordinary view is limited by our conditioning, so when we sit down to practice we are meditating within our own confusion. That is why it is important to adopt the right view to start with; one that at least moves us in the right general direction.

Beginning with the Right View

Meditation is most powerful and effective when we start with the right kind of view. View, in this sense, is a way of seeing that leads to a deeper understanding of the nature of experience, rather than holding a particular dogma or set of beliefs. Our ordinary worldview is something that we adopt almost without knowing it. In this view we want to be secure, to establish ourselves in a position where we can't be disturbed. Consequently, we approach meditation as a way to create some calmness and stability of mind.

In contrast, the Buddhist view is an attitude of complete openness toward whatever arises in our minds and daily lives. Through openness we never say "no" to any experience; it allows us to feel everything as completely as we can. Meditating with this view makes us become much more stable and true to ourselves than trying to be calm ever could.

Bringing an attitude of openness to everything we experience is the most important thing we can do. It empowers our meditation and makes it effective. And it helps to develop a robustness of mind that can work with any circumstance that arises.

Openness relates to what Buddhists call prajna, or wisdom. It has been a central part of Buddhist training for centuries and helps us to develop as truly human beings.

Openness as the Touchstone

Openness has a flavor to it that sounds appealing. We may well feel that the "complete openness" Trungpa Rinpoche talked about is beyond our reach at the moment. But we can at least move in that direction, We always feel we could be more open, and although it might be difficult to define exactly, it's clear that openness won't be found in a closed mind or some other blinkered state.

Openness is the touchstone of the process of discovery that Rinpoche described. He would go on to say that openness is intrinsic to our being. We don't have to create something we don't have already; we just need to link into the reality of what we are. This is not necessarily easy, but it certainly seems easier to reveal something already within us than to create something from scratch. And it is also easier to practice when we take this point of view.

The instruction to be completely open is an inspiring one. But we do need to know how to apply it in all situations. Trungpa Rinpoche's teaching--and indeed the Buddha's teaching is about how to bring openness into every experience, and not just meditation. It can easily feel like meditation is here, daily life is over there, and "ne'er the twain shall meet." But they should, and we can learn to practice in such a way as to make this happen.

The simple instruction of openness can be carried into every type of experience: meditation, daily life, and even states of sleeping and dreaming, when awareness may seem to be absent. Trungpa Rinpoche said that if we can develop the quality of awareness during the day, when the mind is idly wandering, it won't be difficult to remain aware during sleep or dreams. We spend many waking hours dreaming, in any case. Waking and dreaming aren't all that different; we just think they are!

Alone, yet Friendly

As you begin to practice, it will become obvious that meditation is both alone and friendly at the same time. By "alone" I mean the experience is yours, and yours alone. Even when you think about the quality of someone else's experience, it is always in terms of your own. There is no other way it could be.

Meditation is also very friendly. It is friendly because all the practitioners of the past have been here before. You are following in their footsteps, and if you experience something genuine--as you will if you persist in it sufficiently--the practitioners of the future will be following in yours.

The Single Thread

Meditation technique is often viewed as something to be kept secret. However there is nothing secret about the basic Buddhist meditation practice I am about to describe. Perhaps I should qualify that. It is what Trungpa Rinpoche called "self-secret." There is no problem in openly explaining the technique, because what you get from it depends entirely on you. There is endless mileage in the practice, in terms of seeing raw data and significance. But only you can experience that; no one can do it for you.

The meditation described here is commonly referred to as formless meditation. We could call this a beginners' practice, but it is only for beginners in the sense that we start with it. In fact this is a practice we never abandon. When we reach the highest doing the s might have a high-flown name like the Great Perfection--we will find ourselves doing the same meditation.

Formless meditation is associated with the openness and clarity aspects of mind. Within this openness and clarity, gaps occur that make it difficult to remain ego-centered. Egocentricity makes us fearful and shrinking or aggressive and pushy. Either way we're unable to be open, and our clarity is diminished. It is only by joining clarity and openness together that we can act in the world in a precise and genuine way.

Formless meditation is the single thread running through all Buddhist practice. It has great depth and acts as a maturing process for the individual practitioner. Many other practices described are simply ways to work with particular experiences that are difficult to understand or relate to. Such practices may help us to realize what issues there are to work with at all. But all these other seemingly diverse and fascinating techniques arise from this one fundamental method.

sPrevious installments of Wisdom of the Week

Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness: Walking the Buddha's Path – Bhante Henepola Gunaratana s
Ordinary Wisdom, Sakya Pandita’s Treasury of Good Advice – Sakya Pandita (John Davenport, translator) s
Mud & Water: The Collected Teachings of Zen Master Bassui – translated by Arthur Braverman s